The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: October 2020

Only one cinema release to speak of this month – Wales having gone into a “mini lockdown” that prevented me from seeing films such as Pixie – but that aside, let’s see what was hot and what was not in this spooktastic month.

2020 Releases

Rocks (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age drama makes great use of an impressive cast of mostly first time actors and tells a strong story about a young woman who, after her mother ups and leaves one day, has to look after her younger brother and to hide the fact that her mother has left, fearing that social services will relocate them both and separate the two siblings.

Rocks does indeed have a strong and engaging story that’s unique and always interesting to absorb, with nary a dull moment to be found in its 93 minute runtime, and it’s easy to support the central character in her plight, getting us invested in her story and always wanting the best for her, even though she makes several bad decisions and we realise that she will have to inform the proper authorities at some point.

Gavron directs well, getting the pacing and tonal balance just right and coaxing many very good performances from her cast of young, unknown actors – all of whom contribute greatly to the film’s appeal as the young people all give remarkably strong and endearing performances and, perhaps above all else, it is so satisfying to see a wide variety of races and ethnicities represented in the film; the feature is an unabashed celebration of a multicultural Britain and that’s something that we need to see in these turbulent times.

The Boys in the Band (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Ryan Murphy seems to be getting plenty of work these days and here, under the direction of Joe Mantello, he brings us a cinematic adaptation of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play of the same name, which was also brought to the screen in 1970, and it sees an initially joyful and celebratory birthday party attended by several gay men take a nasty turn as secrets are revealed, feelings are hurt, and friendships and relationships are severely tested.

Despite being completely unaware of the existence of this play beforehand and even though I got the feeling that I didn’t truly understand what the characters were going through or what the main “message” was supposed to be, I really enjoyed watching The Boys in the Band as it starts off as a really fun time – watching what appeared to be a really fun group of guys have a laugh certainly brought a smile to my face and made me feel good – but as things took a believeably darker turn, the atmosphere became considerably more tense and awkward and it was quite something to see the group fragment and unfortunate to see certain people turn on each other and damage their previously strong relationships.

It has an excellent script, with a great many clever and witty lines of dialogue that were expressed eloquently by the experienced cast (it’s clear that they are perfectly comfortable with the characters, having apparently performed them on stage previously), the film makes great use of the central location, there’s a good soundtrack, and the central cast are uniformly superb: initially appearing incredibly fun and likeable – the kind of people who you’d love to spend time with – but then going on to show different aspects of their characters as they confront their demons and square off against each other.

Saint Maud (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

Writer/director Rose Glass’ film doesn’t truly deliver on the genuine chills, unease and fright that a film like this should bring audiences but nonetheless, it is an intriguing film with an absorbing story and Morfydd Clark is excellent in her Carrie White-type role. Full review HERE.

Hubie Halloween (2020)

★ ★

I’m definitely no Adam Sandler fan and I purposefully stay away from his work wherever possible but seeing as how he was quite brilliant in Uncut Gems, and given how much I unexpectedly enjoyed the maligned Murder Mystery, I thought that I would give his latest Netflix film a go but unfortunately, this Sandman effort proved to be a big dull dud.

It’s not the slightest bit funny, the story kinda sucks, there are no really good or endearing performances to be found amongst Sandler’s famous buddies, and the main guy himself proves to be the biggest detriment to his own film: portraying a wholly unfunny character and putting on an undeniably annoying voice that Jim Carrey may have attempted at some point.

It’s a 1 and 1/2 star film but what bumps it up to a solid 2 is the film’s unexpectedly sweet and affecting ending, with its “be kind” message. Took me by surprise, that did, and it saved the film a little at the eleventh hour.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

This was an excellently written and directed courtroom drama piece, with the kind of accomplished and informative screenplay that you’d expect from Aaron Sorkin, and it successfully stirs the emotions by getting us to witness the kind of absurd kangaroo court that the central group was subjected to, with the inhumane treatment of Bobby Seale as the icing on the cake, and it has some very strong performances from Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Frank Langella. Full Review HERE.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

★ ★ ★

The sequel to the outrageous 2006 mockumentary doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessor, having much more of an actual plot which sadly doesn’t always work in its favour and having to have Sacha Baron Cohen in numerous disguises throughout the film, obviously having to hide his Borat persona due to the people on the street inevitably recognising him, making it particularly strange that a Borat film can’t actually show Borat!

But the film nonetheless has its fair share of wonderfully cringe-y moments, many of which highlight the odd and perhaps shockingly apathetic behaviour of people today when confronted with racism, xenophobia, misogyny and antisemitism, it provides an eye-widening view of modern day America, and Maria Bakalova proves herself to be more than up to the challenge of matching Sacha Baron Cohen in the comedy stakes and she fully commits to the character and bravely gets stuck in to a great many outrageous and shocking scenarios, all the while giving the film some unexpected heart, which the first film clearly lacked and which is a good thing to witness in these trying times.

Black Box (2020)

★ ★ ★

Released under the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” banner and available to watch on Prime Video (as are the three films that follow below), this film (which is quite clearly a feature length episode of Black Mirror) tells the story of an amnesiac man (Mamoudou Athie) who lost his wife in a tragic car accident and who now struggles to take care of his daughter (though she takes more care of him) while dealing with the difficulties in remembering the simplest things. But he soon agrees to undergo some experimental treatment, administered by Dr. Brooks (Phylicia Rashād), which allows him to enter his lost memories but although this treatment initially seems to improve his memory, he finds himself being haunted by a gruesome creature and has a crisis of identity as harsh truths soon come to light and he begins to question who he truly is.

And yes, it’s Black Mirror through and through. But despite the unshakable similarities, Black Box is nonetheless a decent film; it’s competently made, the acting’s good, and the story manages to entertain, though it’s nothing revolutionary and probably won’t shoot straight to the top of anyone’s “films of the year” lists. Watch it if you’ve got some time to kill.

The Lie (2018)

★ ★

Less Blumhouse and more 9pm on More4, this one’s about a family who decide to cover up a horrible crime in order to protect their daughter and I found it to be a particularly dull and uninteresting film that’s saddled with an boring story, flat characters who aren’t worth caring about, an excruciatingly sluggish pace, and to top it all off, one of the silliest and most nonsensical twists that I’ve seen in film for quite a while. Avoid it.

Evil Eye (2020)

★ ★ ★

Based on an audible original (you don’t see much of that nowadays, do you?), the next film in this Blumhouse series sees a superstitious and overprotective mother become convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of the man who abused and hurt her when she was younger and on the whole, I enjoyed it; on the negative side, the pacing does drag and the film often repeats itself, constantly going over the same material and telling us what we already know, but I thought that the story was decent, the three leading actors were strong, and it did well in establishing an atmosphere of mystery, tension and unease, getting us to wonder whether her mother was on to something, or whether she really was losing her mind.

Not perfect but still the best of the four available Blumhouse films on Prime. Give it a go.

Nocturne (2020)

★ ★ ★

In contrast to the other films in the series, which are far from being scary in any way and make you wonder why they were released under the Blumhouse banner in the first place, Nocturne really does feel like a Blumhouse film as it’s a creepy tale about a talented but shy music student, having been constantly outshined by her twin sister her whole life, who finds a notebook full of messed up images and symbols, having formerly been in the possession of a similarly gifted student who committed suicide, and goes on to become a noticeably more ruthless and confident person as she strives to attain lasting glory and not to let anyone or anything stand in her way.

Apparently a mashup of Whiplash, Black Swan, Suspiria and The Perfection, this film is indeed creepy and unsettling enough to warrant a watch, telling a good enough, though also quite familiar, story of an unassuming and virginial young girl who encounters some dark forces who lead her on a dark path that will lead her to either greatness or destruction and there’s plenty of good filmmaking on display in its direction, cinematography and production design, but pacing is an issue as the film seems to go on forever and interest does wane as the film chugs along.

The final shot is a killer, though.

2020 Television

Ratched (Series One)

★ ★ ★ ★

While I believe that Ryan Murphy’s prequel series is perhaps too much of a departure from the source material, in addition to the production design not sitting here quite right with me, this was still an engrossing and exciting series with a solid, mysterious plot, several intriguing characters, and a magnetic performance from Sarah Paulson. Full review HERE.

The Haunting of Bly Manor

★ ★ ★ ★

The Haunting of Hill House was an incredibly popular and brilliantly made horror series which further proved that Mike Flanagan knows a thing or two about the genre so expectations were surely unenviably high for this, the follow up to the acclaimed Netflix series.

But Hill House comfortably remains the superior of the two because Bly Manor has a particularly rocky and wholly unfrightening first half, introducing characters who aren’t all that interesting and taking quite a long time to fully get into gear, spending too long on a few of the duller characters (and that sadly includes Victoria Pendretti’s protagonist character Dani, who isn’t very interesting at all, I’m afraid to say) and some plot threads that don’t seem to go anywhere, but to its credit, the second half is where things come to life as questions are answered, the plot elements that were put into place in the first half begin to make sense, and the series just gets so much more exciting and compelling.

Particularly in the penultimate episode, in which we learn of Bly Manor’s dark history and which primarily focuses on Kate Siegel’s important heiress character, which is quite comfortably the highlight of the series and it just goes to show that all they had to do was to ditch the uninteresting characters and to let Mrs. Flanagan do all the heavy lifting!

Tiger King

★ ★ ★ ★

This was apparently the series that everyone watched during the first national lockdown but it was only recently, during the “mini lockdown” that we’ve had implemented here in Wales, that I finally got around to watching the incredibly popular series that took the world by storm and became an internet sensation, spawning memes galore and getting everyone talking about Joe Exotic and of course, Carole F**king Baskin.

The first episode introduces us to the major players in our little drama, including the “gay, gun toting, mullet wearing redneck” that is Joe Exotic, and this opening may give you the impression that this will simply be about a few eccentric animal lovers and the crazy world of big cat breeding but as the series goes on, we slowly get to see “behind the curtain” and start to realise that there’s a dark side to Joe and most of the other major players, learning how both animals and employees alike were mistreated, and events take a darker turn as battle lines are drawn and everyone starts talking of murder.

The story of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, “Doc” Antle and Jeff Lowe, among others, truly is stranger than fiction and while watching the series, we witness a truly remarkable, shocking and compelling story unfolding and the documentary sure is a good one as it’s always interesting, the filmmakers assemble a whole host of interviewees – “heroes and villains” alike – who all tell us their remarkable stories, and all in all, Tiger King is a unique, entertaining and memorable documentary that has clearly provided plenty of watercooler moments during this tumultuous year.

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia

★ ★ ★

Another Netflix documentary, this one only consisting of three 45 minute episodes, Fear City tells of how the FBI attempted to bring down organised crime in 1970s New York, going after the heads of the five biggest NY crime families by tapping their phones, TVs and cars and putting them under constant surveillance.

As a fan of mafia themed film and TV, loving such works as The Sopranos, The Untouchables and Goodfellas, I was eager to dive into this latest documentary which looked at the big battle between the mob and the FBI, but although the subject matter is inherently interesting and it’s put together creatively, the series isn’t anything special and doesn’t do enough to justify its existence.

With American Animals director Bart Layton as one of the producers, this documentary is presented in a similar style because it too is a blend of non-fiction interviews/archive footage and staged drama that illustrates what is being talked about, sometimes blending footage from the time with new reenactments that aim to “fill in the gaps” and to give us the full picture of what was going on and all of these reconstructions prove to be beneficial to the film but on the negative side, there aren’t enough interviewees (certainly not as many as there were in Tiger King) so it feels as though we are not being given enough varied information, and the series doesn’t present us with enough enlightening or new facts and I don’t think that it will present audiences with any information that they didn’t know before.

But at least we now know that Rudy Giuliani did at least one positive thing before he became a member of Team Trump.

The Best of the Rest

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

What all mock/rockumentaries should surely aspire to, this popular 2016 film has a consistently funny and unabashedly bold script (here, the constant f-bombs and outrageous humour actually works very well), it’s always fun and entertaining, and so many songs are absolute bangers, the lyrics thankfully being crystal clear and easy to understand – as someone who is “lyric deaf”, I often find it difficult to ascertain just what people are singing about but here, the words are crystal clear, thank God.

The Nightingale (2018)

Another hit for Babadook director Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale is most definitely my kind of film: essentially an 18-rated version of True Grit that is brilliantly shot and boldly violent and it has a strong story and manages to provoke so many emotions.

Frankenweenie (2012)

This, Mr. Burton is the kind of film we want to see from you. Forget about duds like Alice in Wonderland, Miss Peregrine and Dumbo, here is where you shine.

Probably my favourite Halloween themed film that I saw for the first time this year, this animated film looks immaculate and it has a very clever and fun story that manages to be both funny and genuinely emotional and there are plenty of affectionate references to classic horror films that fans of the genre will just lap up.

It’s well worth checking out his original 26 minute film from 1984 as well – it’s remarkably effective and it demonstrates just what Tim Burton was capable of as a director.

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